The New Hampshire winter has put up quite a fight, but the volunteers who clear and maintain the ice runway in Alton Bay have not quit, instead making a mighty push to salvage the final weeks of this season.
Until late February, the unrelenting parade of snowstorms tested the dedication of those who maintain their unique aviation destination.
“It just so happened that last week was the first full week that we could remain open,” said Paul LaRochelle on March 3. He is the volunteer leader of a small group of local men with plows on their pickups who spend hours scraping snow from the 2,600-foot Runway 1/19 at B18.
It is only suitable for seaplanes and amphibians for much of the year, the south end of the runway a snowball’s throw from a close-knit collection of restaurants and shops clustered around a marina. The aircraft park in winter just offshore atop a foot or more of ice covering Alton Bay, which protrudes like a finger of Lake Winnipesaukee reaching south to touch the town that accepts aircraft and pilots with eager grace. No one complains about the noise, LaRochelle said.
“The town just loves to see the planes come in and out,” LaRochelle said. The ice runway at Alton Bay is convenient to the handful of shops and restaurants that line the shore, anchored by Irwin Marine of Alton Bay (formerly Gillian Marine). LaRochelle’s wife runs Facet Jewelers, where pilots can drop in for a free certificate to commemorate their ice landing. There are four dining options within a short walk, and a cigar shop—each with a warm welcome for general aviation pilots, and the respite those pilots offer from a long winter of absent lake-goers. Arriving aircraft, from taildraggers on skis to twin-engine Cessnas, become the talk of the town.
“Everybody loves them to come in,” LaRochelle said. “It’s a uniqueness of the bay that people just love to see”
All of this helps explain the dedication that has gone into the effort this year. LaRochelle said the ice runway opened in January, as it usually does, but the relentless string of snowstorms that hammered New England required great perseverance. The airport would open for a day, then close, clear snow, open for a few days, and more snow would arrive. The process repeated often, LaRochelle and four fellow volunteers driving their pickup trucks onto the ice and plowing for six hours at a throw with three trucks, a job that required eight hours between two trucks. They cleared and cleared again a taxiway and ramp, as well as the 100-foot-wide runway. LaRochelle updates the airport answering machine (603/875-3498) daily with weather and field conditions. He does not bother to mention braking action in those reports. It consistently ranges from “zero to none,” he said with a chuckle.
On the final weekend in February, a rare break in the weather action brought a calm, sunny day, and pilots converged from points near and far. It has since the late 1970s become one of New England’s traditions, a winter visit to Alton Bay that was covered in detail in the January 2010 issue of AOPA Pilot.
“We lost count after 100 planes,” LaRochelle said of the last Saturday of February, eagerly listing many of the different types. He is not a pilot, but like many local residents has learned to identify many aircraft on sight.
While the temperatures climbed March 4 to around 40 degrees, sub-freezing temperatures were expected to return March 5; the first weekend of March was shaping up to be cloudy and in the mid-30s, though New England forecasts notoriously change often. LaRochelle had all of the dogged optimism of a man who had dedicated many hours already to a runway of great importance to pilots and his fellow residents alike.
“If the weather holds I think we’re going to have a busy weekend,” LaRochelle said brightly, on March 3.
With any luck, it would be followed by one more good weekend before warming weather melts the ice runway.
“I’m thinking and I’m hoping that we can go on for another two weeks,” LaRochelle said.